Give us a kiss a novel, p.1
Give Us a Kiss: A Novel, p.1Daniel Woodrell
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This novel is dedicated to three
ladies whose support made it happen:
Marian Wood, Ellen Levine,
and Deborah Sweet
And to the memory of
Robert Lee Woodrell
And He saieth, “Let the trumpets and the
saxophones swing, man, swing!”
—FROM HIS JAZZY EULOGY
Pedro (Pee-drow) Daily
“Now, if a fella only knew…”
—FROM HIS LIPS, MANY TIMES
“All we demanded was our right to twinkle.”
When I was perhaps seven years old, attending a family reunion at my grandmother’s house, I happened to notice that my great-uncle Hunter Bean (everybody in his generation affectionately called him “Chili”) appeared to be, alone out of all the adults in attendance, unmarried. I asked my mother, whose uncle he was, why he didn’t have a wife. Chili had many siblings, and several of them overheard me asking the question. “You go over there and ask him that,” one of them told me—could it have been Melton? They run together in my memory, all those tough old birds who came to maturity during the Depression.
I know now that Hunter had, years before, walked into his pleasant home in town after work one day to discover his wife in bed with another man. He left the house that moment, taking nothing with him, and for the rest of his life lived alone in a ramshackle camp on a wide bend in the Jackson River, surrounded by knives and well-used firearms and numerous freezers packed full of venison and pans of black fudge. At that age, though, I just couldn’t imagine why a grown man wasn’t married. So I went over to my great-uncle and I asked him, “Uncle Hunter, why haven’t you got a wife?”
He stopped scooping food onto an already-full plate—even now the memory of the groaning boards of those big family occasions makes my mouth water—and he leaned down distressingly close to my face, and he bugged his eyes, and he said to me, serious as death (I will never until the day I die forget the words or the thrill of horror they sent through me), “The hogs et her!”
I burst into panicked tears. The adults around me roared with laughter. This was a familiar joke to them. Chili turned his attention seamlessly back to his supper.
The Ozark hillbillies who populate Give Us a Kiss are the spitting images of the hillbillies I know from having grown up among the mountains of southern West Virginia. They’re at once hilariously droll and uncommonly cruel, and it’s usually not an easy thing to discern where precisely the border between those two conditions lies. We are told that Panda, the ruined patriarch of the Redmond clan that dominates the novel, has “got a big mean streak and a big funny streak and fairly often they are the same streak. He delivers jokes that hurt and mean things that make you laugh, sometimes.” That sounds to me exactly like my Uncle Hunter, whom I feared and adored, and all of his difficult clan, of which I am—not against my will, exactly, but not entirely voluntarily either—a lifelong member.
Uncle Hunter never wanted to be called a hillbilly. He’d been to college, and so what he properly was, he informed us on numerous occasions, was a Mountain William. That description precisely fits the novel’s protagonist, Doyle Redmond, who pronounces himself “a somewhat educated hillbilly who keeps his diction stunted down out of crippling allegiance to his roots.” When you’re from the Appalachians, as I am, or from the Ozarks, as Daniel Woodrell is, hillbilly is a loaded term, a word that you want to deploy only with considerable care. Some folks can say the word and the sneer in their voices makes you want to stave in their heads. Other folks can say it—hell, they can call you hillbilly to your face—and you just want to give them a big hug. Daniel Woodrell is, happily, one of this latter kind. He gets, from the inside, the bifurcated and intoxicating nature of the American hillbilly, and every word that he writes demonstrates that powerful sympathy.
He gets the hillbilly’s fanatical, almost pagan connection to the land out of which he scratches his desperately hard living. He gets that the hillbilly knows and loves (in fact, all but worships) the land, not just in its present state, but as it has been in the deep, distant past. That past is more real to a true hillbilly than any present, no matter how thrilling or dangerous, could ever be. Says our narrator Doyle, with the precision of a geologist (or perhaps a scholar of the Biblical deluge), “Our region, the Ozarks, was all carved by water. When the ice age shifted, the world was nothing but a flood. The runoff through the ages since had slashed valleys and ravines and dark hollows through the mountains.”
For Doyle, as for Woodrell, the hillbillies and the hills from which their moniker derives are one and the same: “These mountains are among the oldest on the planet, worn down now to nubby, stubborn knobs. Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of to tower, and they are plenty rugged but without much of the majestic left in them.” What the people of this region, and of this novel, lack in apparent splendor, they more than make up for in obstinacy and tenacity, qualities which possess a grandeur all their own. Their breed is old in the way that the land is old, and like the land, they will persevere against all adversity, hunkering down lower, perhaps, and weathering harder, but never giving in.
This obsession with a past beyond all human recollection powerfully reminds one of the passage near the beginning of Breece D’J Pancake’s classic story “Trilobites” (the very name bespeaks unthinkable antiquity), in which the protagonist looks around at the land that he adores, and that breaks his heart:
I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters.
Pancake is the patron saint of modern hillbilly fiction, and the connection between his work and Woodrell’s speaks of the serious literary purpose and cultural intelligence that underlies the joyous pandemonium of Give Us a Kiss.
All of this palaver about history and purpose perhaps makes the book sound literary (in the unfortunate sense of that word) and tedious, when of course nothing could be further from the truth. Give Us a Kiss is beautifully composed, yes, but it’s also a flat-out hoot, and it screams along—with its dope-growing and gunslinging and goomer magic, along with a healthy dollop of scalding sex with gorgeous hillbilly girls—at a thriller pace. It’s also not infrequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the humor fittingly sits cheek-by-jowl with some of the most persuasive violence this side of Truman Capote. (“Then I sighted in on the Dolly and emptied the ladystinger into his back, li’l plumes of blood splashing up in the kind of li’l splashes pennies make when tossed into a wishing well. ‘There’s your mercy, girl.’ ” Chilling stuff!) It’s a demanding balancing act, and Woodrell executes it flawlessly.
The great and terrible Hunter “Chili” Bean, now long in his grave, would instantly have recognized everybody in Give Us a Kiss, from the once-prosperous Redmonds and their sizzling-hot girlfriends to the near-simian Dollys, and he’d have lov
THREE FINGER JERKS
I HAD A FAMILY errand to run, that’s all, but I decided to take a pistol. It was just a little black thirty-two ladystinger and I tucked it into the blue pillowcase that held my traveling clothes. The pillowcase sat on the passenger’s seat, because you never know when you’ll need to slide a hand in there, all of a sudden, somewhere along the road. I was on the drift back from California to someplace that didn’t have any bench warrants out on me, and naturally I’d showed my face at my folks’ place in K.C., and they saw I had the spare time to take on errands for them. There was no point in arguing. This errand I wanted to do anyway, pretty much, just to see the details of the situation and to note the conclusion, should there be one. After I tuned the radio to a station playing good cornpone driving tunes, I pointed the sort of stagnant pond-green Volvo with Missouri plates I was driving, which probably was on hot sheets as a yellow Volvo with California plates, into traffic on Highway 71, and booked it south from Kansas City.
The law had come nosing around for Smoke again, and Mom and General Jo asked if I wouldn’t go back down home, find my big brother, and talk some sense at him. The Kansas City law had a serious warrant, and, really, truth was on their side, but us Redmonds have never been the sort of bloodline who’ll give our kin up easy to the penitentiary. It is one of our legends of our hillbilly selves, our heritage and genetic demeanor, that we don’t truckle before authority. Mom and General Jo had squared up long ago and gotten a straight life going for themselves on the Kansas side of Kansas City near Thirty-ninth and Rainbow, but these cops on Smoke’s case had lost patience with their recitations of ignorance and were getting all bent out of shape. Smoke was hid away down in the Ozark hills where we came from, and had been for over two years, but the folks figured it was time he came on in and tried to cop a plea. The law had been on their butts almost daily, with spot visits and surly phone calls at all hours, and had finally worn them out as parents.
“Doyle,” General Jo had said, “you help us with Smoke, son, and we’ll help you with your trouble. Your trouble ain’t really much. Domestic shit, is all.”
I’d said what I had to, which was, No sweat, I’ll do it.
A hundred miles south or so I cut east and rolled into the Ozarks region, which is the perfect flip side to a metroplex. It’s all meadows and hills, trees, and red, rocky dirt. The houses show signs of having been built by different generations with different notions of architecture, but all run together to make single rambling homes where the different wings appear almost to have been built as refutations of previous wings. You start seeing chickens in the yards and huge gardens and swing chairs on porches and various vehicles that have rusted so successfully into the landscape as to appear indigenous. Quite a few weathered, tilting outhouses are still standing as a hedge against those fearful days when the septic tank backs up.
Our region, the Ozarks, was all carved by water. When the ice age shifted, the world was nothing but a flood. The runoff through the ages since had slashed valleys and ravines and dark hollows through the mountains. Caves of many sizes are abundant in the cliffs and hillsides, booger-gloomy tunnels that track deep beneath the dirt crust, toward the core, which is allegedly extreme in temperature. These mountains are among the oldest on the planet, worn down now to nubby, stubborn knobs. Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of tower, and they are plenty rugged but without much of the majestic left in them. The hillsides and valleys sport vast acreages of hardwood and scrub oak and pine, with small, splendid creeks and rivers tracing the low spots. Here and there chunks of land have been cleared by that type of person who has no quit in them at all. Clearing a farm in this terrain often takes generations of bickering and blood blisters to get done, and these hillbillies stuck with it. As a reward for their diligence, they got to give a go at squeezing a living from chickens and hogs and stony fields of red, feckless dirt.
On passing such homesteads I think, Hats off to your hardworking dead and living!
Right near Green Eye I stopped at a Country Boy’s and scooped a six of Busch and a couple packs of Lucky Strike straights. That helped a little. When I finally hit West Table, Mo., our real home, twenty miles north of the Arkansas line in the bull’s-eye heart of the Ozarks, the sun had climbed way up past straight and was evil hot. It might’ve been a nice day in early August if the heat was knocked down to ninety or so. The old boys sitting on benches around the square had their hats in their hands, fanning their faces, telling jokes that were fresh back when Bing Crosby’s crooning made young girls wet their floursack panties. There was a kid with a stick stretching a softened wad of chewing gum off the curb, spinning a long gooey web around himself he wouldn’t soon be shed of. This town, where I was born, and Mom and General Jo were born, and all of us on back past the Civil War were born, is still that way. There is a town square with shops and stores that haven’t been strangled by Wal-Mart yet, with diagonal parking all the way around. The old kind of soda fountains still exist, two of them anyway, and everybody seems to know your face if not your name if you’re a local Ozarker.
On the far side of the square I braked for two ladies from the bank to cross the street, their cotton skirts all clung up in their butts, by sweat, I imagine. They seemed to know the fine picture they made when they caught me smiling wider than just friendly, because one pinched her fingers up there and shook her skirt loose and less interesting, while the other fluttered her fingers at me and didn’t bother. She smiled, too. I believe she was one of the McArdles, from three or four years behind me in school.
On past the square and down Grace Avenue I pulled in at Slager’s Liquor Store. I hoped I could get in and get out without seeing anybody I’d have to jaw with. Everybody talks with everybody in West Table, and a ten-minute trip to the hardware store can yawn into an hour and a half of trading windy chat about hog prices, cousin Fannie’s gout acting up, places where the fish are biting, and places old codgers used to go where, believe me, sonny, those Memphis gals did not bite. This is the surface of life here, anyway. Back behind the smiles and homespun manners and classic American hokum there’s a whole nother side of life, a darker, semilawless, hillbilly side. The side of my homeland that has always attracted me, as it had all the Redmonds and Dawes from whom I spring, and held my respect.
Mr. Slager was behind the counter inside his booze store. He was a crisp little bantamweight fella, up in years, who affected neomilitary attire. His shirts always sported epaulettes, or else they were camouflage. You could get cheap thrills by sticking his spit-shined shoes under skirts and keeping your eyes on the toes. Slager was a decent old skin, yet he had a wistful air about him, standing in his store window in the uniform of the day, that gave me the feeling he thought he’d unfairly survived a patch of bad combat back on Pork Chop Hill or some battle of that vintage.
The store was air-conditioned down forty degrees from the outside, and it instantly chilled my sweat. As the heavy door shut behind me, Slager said, “Hiya.”
“How’re you, Mr. Slager?”
He didn’t seem to know me, since I’d been gone quite a while.
“No kick comin’,” he said, looking at me pretty close. “Whatta ya—Hey, you’re one of ol’ Panda’s, uh, grandkids, right?”
“Right. Doyle Redmond.”
He leaned forward, as if to inspect my uniform, then snapped back to ramrod straight.
“My God,” he said. “It is you—that ponytail threw me. And those whiskers—that’s called a, what’s that now? Goaty, eh?”
“It’s sort of a goaty, sort of not,” I said. “What I need is a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.”
“We got,” Slager said. He spun around and reached up for the bottle, then
“You have to work up to it,” I said. “Once you get the taste for it, there’s no goin’ back.”
“I’ve been told,” he said. “I know ol’ Panda prefers it—I didn’t know you beatniks did.”
I let that beatnik comment slide by, wondering if Slager had never bought a TV or anything, because that bongo-beatnik stuff was back about when I was born.
“What’s the damage, Mr. Slager?”
“It’s not cheap,” he said. “Scotch. Too something or other for my taste. Nineteen dollars.”
There was a poster behind the register that advertised beer while discouraging drunk driving, but it was the tall glass of beer that stood out, beckoned. A Bush-Quayle sticker was glued flat on the counter, and I put a twenty down on it out of the two hundred the folks had spotted me.
Slager scooped the bill, rang it up.
“Sellin’ more and more of the stuff, though,” he said.
“Now I’m back, keep it in stock.”
“I do that for Panda already.”
I picked up my change and the bag with the bottle in it, then headed toward the door.
“Give my best to Panda.”
“I’ll do her,” I said, and by the time I was behind the wheel again Slager was staring off out the window, back on Pork Chop Hill or whatever, imagining himself dying gloriously with his heroic comrades instead of living on and on for no special reason except to feel semper fi and lonesome and guilty.
Panda’s house was at the edge of town, just a few more blocks along Grace Avenue from Slager’s, and it sat atop a steep nub of earth right up against the town cemetery, almost looming over the acres of dead. When I pulled into the pea-gravel drive I could see my grandpa the sportsman at the door of the side porch, a cigar in his mouth, a BB rifle in his hand. Since his knees went kaplooey this had gotten to be his hobby, hanging out the door, potshotting at the bevy of squirrels that run between the mighty, leafy oaks of the cemetery. The fact that there are plenty of squirrels still alive in there amongst the headstones gives testimony to how many years Panda has stacked behind him, because there was a time he didn’t miss what he shot at. Once in a while he’ll hit a car cutting through the cemetery and some poor sap’ll come to the door to complain and get deluged with one of Panda’s spectacular gushers of bullshit that usually ends when the fella with the dinged car apologizes and offers to drop off some tomatoes fresh from his garden. Panda is a pisser of an old man, and he’s got a big mean streak and a big funny streak and fairly often they are the same streak. He delivers jokes that hurt and mean things that make you laugh, sometimes.
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